Trio Happy Abandon formed in 2015 when Peter Vance (guitar and vocals), Justin Ellis (bass) and Jake Waits (percussion) met at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. We spoke to them about their formation, album Facepaint and going on tour.
Facepaint is an accumulation of songs that were written over a period of time when I felt very vulnerable, lost, and confused. - Peter Vance
First up, tell us bit about yourselves - what first got you into music?
Peter Vance: This is Peter, I’m the guitarist, and lead singer for Happy Abandon. When I was younger and my parents would play music, whether on the radio or their own personal collection, I always enjoyed it. I assumed that music was just something that was significant in everyone’s lives. And though that is partly true, I realized my relationship with music was different than a lot of my friends’. It evolved from a simple interest to an absolute obsession, from lyrics to melodies to instrumentation, it all fascinated me. I wanted to participate.
My parents gifted me a quarter or half sized acoustic guitar that I learned most of the basics, and from there I began writing my own music. After years and years of writing, I eventually started writing songs I felt confident performing. Now it feels like that’s all I do.
Justin Ellis: My name is Justin, and I play bass in the band. I started dabbling in music when I was very young, but didn’t take it seriously until I discovered The Beatles in 7th grade.. I instantly wanted to be Paul McCartney. My dad plays bass too, and he taught me “Lady Madonna” - and that was pretty much the beginning of the end!
JW: Jake here, I remember growing up my mom would sing and play the piano. And my cousins Mark–who used to play drums–and Brock who is a singer/songwriter/guitarist. All of them inspired me in different ways, introduced me to the beauty and intrigue of music. I tried viola in 4th grade, but I really clicked with percussion in 6th grade around the time Mark handed me down his drum kit.
How and when did you form the band? What was it that brought you together?
PV: Jake and I started playing the songs I was writing in late 2014. We were a two-piece for a pretty long time, and didn’t start playing in front of people until about march or april 2015. We had played together in a previous band where I played bass and he played drums, but my heart was still focused on my own songs. Jake showed interest in playing on those songs, and eventually we started playing more and more. About a year or so later we asked Justin, who had played bass with us for a few shows, to be the bassist for Happy Abandon.
Jake Waits: The landscape of the Chapel HiIl music scene is always changing; every few years there’s a wave of new talented musicians that mixes and swirls around and forms bands. Many projects share players and sometimes one project fizzles only to be reborn into another band with a different iteration of people. Imagine a pile of puzzle pieces and seeing all the ways they could possibly fit together. Really interesting stuff.
Were there any particular bands or artists you took inspiration from to form your musical and thematic style?
PV: Not really. I have songwriting influences, like Sufjan Stevens, but the musical and thematic style was something that came naturally between the three of us and our friend Alex Thompson, who participates in a lot of the extra instrumentation compositions. In no way were we trying to emulate other artists, we just create what we feel best represents the songs, and we are very fortunate to all be on the same page.
JE: I’d say that some trademarks of our sound include emphasized dynamics, active percussion, loads of harmonies, etc. - which inevitably leads to comparisons to bands we do love such as Sigur Ros, Fleet Foxes, Alt-J, Local Natives, and Jeff Buckley, to name a few. And though I would call those bands influences for sure, my favorite thing about this band, even as a fan before I joined, is how unique the sound is.
As a bassist and my role in the band or whatever, my favorite players are John Entwistle (The Who), John Deacon (Queen), and Ira Wolf Tuton (Yeasayer).
How would you describe your style?
PV: Orchestral Indie Rock.
JE: We’re basically “musical theatre” the rock band. “Theatrical” is our middle name.
JW: Dynamic in tempo, volume, and emotion.
You played at SXSW. How did that go?
JE: SXSW was a crazy experience. I had joined the band only three months before we decided to head out there. We didn’t have any shows booked or anything, but I had enough connections through my years touring in previous bands that we were able to book a quick tour from North Carolina to Austin and back. Our plan was, as a new band with no touring history or anything, to just be in Austin during the 4 days of music events at SXSW to meet some cool folks, make some connections, and have a gameplan for the following year.
However, we were able to land six gigs during our four days there after reaching out to friends of friends and snagging slots from bands that had to cancel due to sickness or van breakdowns. Chief among them was the Blurt Magazine/ Dogfish Head Brewing SXSW party, where we got to play two slots thanks to Stephen Judge of Schoolkids Records - who, thanks to our experience there, is now our confidant and label head. We’ve also made some really great friends of bands we played with that we still share bills with today (Atlanta’s The Head, Austin’s Toma and Velo, and more).
And when we weren’t playing, we got to see so many of our favorite up-and-coming bands for free! (Mothers, Japanese Breakfast, And The Kids, Royal Canoe, etc.) - I can’t wait to go back.
What’s your favourite story about being on tour?
JE: The most absurd thing to happen in recent memory is when we played in Richland WA, earlier on this tour, I met another bass player, also named Justin. Turns out he was born in Asheville, NC (4 hours’ drive west of our home) and that he had family in Eastern Canada. My mother is French Canadian and I also have loads of relatives in Eastern Canada. The similarities were so eerie.
The people you meet, in my mind, is the best aspect of the road. From getting great show opportunities or places to sleep or meals, offered by strangers who want nothing more to support you and your art, consistently revitalizes my faith in humanity.
JW: There’s too many stories to choose from. We climb mountains sometimes. We stay up all night at festivals meeting people, hanging out and dancing. We drove THROUGH a tree.
Tell us about your album Facepaint. What’s it about?
PV: Facepaint is an accumulation of songs that were written over a period of time when I felt very vulnerable, lost, and confused. All of the songs relate to a facet of my life that I felt needed solutions, but I could not find any, and the recognition that sometimes there are no solutions.
Sometimes you just have to accept what has happened, whether it’s a break up, death, social injustice, or familial abandonment, and push through it, strengthen yourself, and be prepared for the next time something like it happens. Not to say that there aren’t solutions. Many times fighting for rights and solutions is very important. But for a lot of people, including myself, there needs to be time to… grieve I suppose. Or just sit and consider what has happened.
Then, after you’ve hopefully made since of the situation, make the choices that follow the situation.
When did you write the album and where did you record it?
PV: I’ve been writing the songs for this album for years. A couple songs were in their earliest stages before Happy Abandon was even a thought. Some of the songs didn’t get finished until the day we needed to record them. It was a long, challenging, and very fun process. We recorded most of it with our bud Jason Merritt at his lakehouse studio on Lake Gaston. For any musicians reading this, if you ever get an opportunity to record for a week straight at a lake house directly next to a lake, I highly recommend it. It was the most spectacular experience I’ve ever had recording.
We recorded most of the extra instruments, like violins and cellos, at Overdub Lane in Durham, N.C. where Jason also works. For the extra percussion, like timpani, tubular bells, and gongs, we went to North Carolina Central University, where they graciously let us record and use their instruments as part of a recording class.
What’s your favourite song on the album?
PV: I respectfully refuse to answer this question. I love them all, for very different reasons.
JE: I can’t really explain or say specifically why, but my favorite song in terms of how the recording turned out is probably ‘Choice’. We don’t play it live super often, but we have a video in the works for it that I’m very, very excited about. It just feel so sad and wistful yet cozy. It reminds me of autumn, which is my favorite season.
JW: ‘Heavy Lines’. It’s the first song we ever did a demo of almost three years ago - in that first recording I could hear what kind of potential we had. It gave me shivers and I think I must have listened to the song about 25 times that first night, too excited to wind down and sleep.
Which was the hardest to write?
PV: The one that was giving me the most difficulty was Beneath Our Feet. I had written the whole structure, and we had written all the parts, composed or the instrumentation, did everything we could. But I just could not finish the lyrics. I think it may be because I wanted the song to be about external observations of a socio-political context, which I never do.
All of my songs are almost exclusively about internal struggle within myself or the people around me. Beneath Our Feet was very much about how external consequences can just as significant of an impact in a very different way.
Do you have a fondness for a particular song when playing live?
PV: ‘Severed Seams’ still gives me chills every time we play it. I also love it when we play Cursed or Worse and the whole crowd is quietly engaged for the entire song. It makes me feel like they are absorbing every word I’m singing, and is having some sort of impact on them. The same idea goes for ‘Stop Taking Care of Me’, which is the song people most often talk to me about after a show.
JE: We have a few songs (‘Severed Seams’, ‘Take Me’, ‘Heavy Lines’) that just get really, really big. Watching people watching us play them for the first time never gets old. They’re either enthralled or confused.
JW: There are moments in every song that I’m fond of. BUT I get to play a ton of buzz rolls in ‘If I Stare’. Nothing’s better than a smooth, clean buzz roll.
What are your hopes for Facepaint?
PV: My hopes for Facepaint have been met. We created an album that, in my opinion, is the best it can be. I’ve never been more proud of a piece of art that I’ve participated in the creation of. I do hope that it is something special for other people as well, and I want people to want to hear us play the songs live of course. But this album is everything I wanted it to be and more.
JE: Facepaint is the best piece of creative work I’ve ever been lucky to be a part of. Of course I would love it to be heard by as many people as possible, and it’ll be a long time before I tire of performing it live. If it became a hit record or a cult favorite 10 years from now, I would obviously be ecstatic. But it’s already satisfied me on so many levels just by existing.
When and where can we expect to see you on tour next?
JE: We’re currently in Texas en route to New Orleans, on the tail end of our first West Coast Tour, heading home throughout the Southeast. At the end of the month we’ll be flying out to Ireland to do six shows, including three shows supporting Mundy, then we’ll be back in the Northeast for a few shows over the holidays. Then back to Holland, the UK, Ireland, and other parts of Europe in the spring. All of our dates can be found on our website, for those interested!
If you could collaborate with any living artist, who would it be?
PV: If I had to pick just one, it would be Andrew Bird. I would want to do a whistling duet with him.
JE: I would love to make a record with Brian Eno and/or Peter Katis someday, either as a performer or an engineer. Those two made some of my all-time favorite records, and I would learn so much from them. JW: For me it’s a tie between Jonsi and Kanye. I’d want them on the same project, do a stylistic reduction, simmer it down to little ideas, toss it all in a record studio with some butter and EVOO and see what cooks up. Somewhere between Yeezy’s angry-riffing on top of wonderfully over-produced tracks and Jonsi’s soaring emotional range there is space for some sweet, sweet drumming.
Finally, if you could go back in time and give yourself one piece of advice, when would it be and what would you say?
PV: I’d probably tell high-school me Keep working hard, but don’t be too hard on yourself. And it is good to be aware of your emotions, but don’t become debilitated by them. Also, make sure you’re just nice. Be active, go out and try to experience and learn everything you can.
JE: To quote the great philosopher Nike - ‘Just Do It’. And that failure doesn’t exist. I probably would have told that to myself the first, second, and third times bands I was in ended and I wasn’t sure if I could or wanted to try again.
JW: I’d go back in time about two weeks, and I’d tell myself ‘DON’T FORGET your iPAD in PORTLAND’.
Listen to Happy Abandon on SoundCloud below. For news and tour dates go to happyabandonmusic.com.